Sobriety vs. Abstinence

When working a program of recovery, one word that is spoken all the time is SOBRIETY. “Am I sober?” “How many days sober am I?” “I did _______…Do I need to reset my sobriety?”

What do we mean when we use that word? Is sobriety simply the absence of acting out behavior? If so, does that mean sobriety and abstinence are synonymous terms?

I believe there is a difference. While it may seem like splitting hairs, I think it’s important to draw and understand the distinction between the two. What would it look like if we thought of abstinence more as something we are trying to avoid; and of sobriety as something we try to pursue? What difference would that make in my perspective? In this way, abstinence – the avoiding of destructive or addictive behavior – becomes PART of my pursuit of sobriety.

Sobriety is not a new concept, nor one that is unique to addiction recovery. In fact, it’s quite biblical. The Bible talks several times* in the New Testament about being “sober-minded.” The way sobriety is described in the Bible shows us that sobriety means I’m alert, awake, and engaged. (*Romans 12:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:13,  4:7, 5:8)

When I am living sober, I am able to anticipate and see attacks before they happen, so that they do not surprise or overwhelm me. When I am living sober, I can clearly see where I am going and I have the focus to keep moving toward that destination.

A member of Awaken’s men’s fellowship has written the following, to encourage us to meditate more on the distinctions. I hope it encourages you!

Abstinence is…giving up a behavior for a prescribed period of time.

Sobriety is…choosing a path of daily surrender for a lifetime.


Abstinence is…often enforced by external pressure.

Sobriety is…from an internal desire to do the next right thing.


Abstinence is…having something ripped away from us while we scratch and claw to get it back.

Sobriety is…gladly opening up our hand to give it up.


Abstinence is…a sprint.

Sobriety is…a marathon.


Abstinence is…something we do.

Sobriety is…something we become.


Abstinence is…a knock-down, drag-out fight in the dirt on a hot day.

Sobriety is…a walk along a beach with a light breeze blowing.


Abstinence is…something that we can’t wait to end.

Sobriety is…something that are grateful for every day.


Abstinence is…exhausting.

Sobriety is…refreshing.


Abstinence is…giving up something that we really want.

Sobriety is…changing what we want and how we want it.


Abstinence is…behavior changing.

Sobriety is…life changing.


Abstinence is…measured in weeks, months, or years.

Sobriety is…attained one day at a time.


Abstinence is…a chore.

Sobriety is…a gift.


– A grateful member of the Awaken community

Awaken is a Birmingham, AL based ministry walking with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders who have been impacted by sexual brokenness & addiction. Our goal is to help people experience hope, connection, and healing through the gospel and the recovery process. If you want to know more about Awaken or our resources, email us at!